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Here's the Buzz on Alcohol in Space

space drunk
So an astronaut walks into a bar in a galaxy far, far away ... romanmoris/Getty Images

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In September 2018, a new breakthrough in space technology was uncorked — a specially designed bottle that will make it possible to drink Champagne in the microgravity environment of space. The bottle contains two chambers, as detailed in this Agence-France Presse article, one for the Champagne and the other for a valve that uses the carbon dioxide in the Champagne to eject foamy little alcohol spheres, which can then be scooped into long-stemmed glasses for sipping. Once inside the mouth, the spheres turn back — voilà — into liquid Champagne. This video from Champagne maker G.H. Mumm shows how it worked on a test flight:

The space Champagne, as AFP reported, is envisioned as an amenity for space tourists who someday may be taking pleasure trips with private space-flight operators.

If future recreational astronauts do get the chance to savor some of the bubbly, it won't be the first time that alcohol has been consumed in space. The practice goes back to the early days of the Soviet space program, when the USSR's doctors reportedly sent cosmonauts into orbit with rations of cognac. "We used it to stimulate our immune system and on the whole to keep our organisms in tone," one former cosmonaut told NBC News. Later on, cosmonauts began drinking a liqueur containing ginseng, a root that's a traditional Asian herbal remedy for improving energy and concentration.

NASA, in contrast, generally hasn't allowed astronauts to drink — not just in space, but also within 16 hours of a space launch. But the agency has wavered from its teetotaling stance at times. There reportedly was a plan, for example, to allow the Apollo 8 crew to drink a small ration of brandy to go with their Christmas meal of dehydrated bacon cubes and turkey gravy stuffing, but Commander Frank Borman decided that they should forgo the alcohol. On the Apollo 11 trip to the moon in 1969, astronaut Buzz Aldrin did open a small plastic container of wine, but it was so that he, a Presbyterian elder, could take communion, according to NBC News.

As former NASA food developers Charles T. Bourland and Gregory L. Vogt detail in their book "The Astronaut's Cookbook: Tales, Recipes, and More," NASA considered providing astronauts on the Skylab mission in the 1970s with sherry, packaged in flexible plastic pouches with built-in drinking tubes, but the idea was nixed for fear of negative publicity.

But back in 1985, a NASA report titled "Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight" did contemplate the pros and cons of drinking on space flights and in future settlements on the moon or other planets. "It is unlikely that alcohol as a social beverage will find its way into space, at least until relatively large and stable settlements are established," the report noted. "Alcohol, as a recreational drug, may be keenly missed by space travelers, since there is evidence that alcohol plays an important social role in exotic environments."

No Booze on the ISS

Generally, though, today's space travelers have to wait until they get back to Earth until they have a drink. Because of alcohol's chemical volatility — that is, its tendency to vaporize — astronauts aren't allowed to have it on the International Space Station, due to "the negative effects [that] alcohol can have on the water recovery system which draws in water from a number of sources, including cabin condensation," Daniel G. Huot, a spokesman at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says via email. The ban applies not just to beverages, but to any sort of product containing alcohol, such as aftershave or mouthwash.

There's another tricky issue about drinking in space: Not much is known about the effect of alcohol consumption on the human body in the space environment, which already is known to alter everything from the immune system to hand-eye coordination. "I don't know of any studies that have been done," says Dr. Jay C. Buckley, a former astronaut who is a professor of medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. So we really don't know whether the space environment would intensify the intoxicating effect of alcohol, or how an orbital hangover would compare to one that results from a bender on Earth.

While we don't have much science on alcohol in space, for what it's worth, there has been research on the effects of alcohol consumption at high altitudes on Earth. In this 1988 study, for example, some of the male subjects drank a quantity of 100-proof vodka adjusted to their weight — for a 175-pound (79-kilogram) man, about four shots — and then spent the day in a simulated 12,500-foot elevation (3,810-meter) environment, so they could be compared to other subjects who didn't drink and/or stayed at sea level. The drinkers experienced impaired performance on a battery of tasks, with older subjects performing worse than younger ones, but there wasn't a significant difference between drinkers at high altitude and those who stayed on the ground.

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